Approach-Avoidance Conflict-a Multi-level Predictor for Therapy Response

Conditions:Anxiety, Psychiatric
Therapuetic Areas:Psychiatry / Psychology
Age Range:18 - 55
Start Date:June 2016
End Date:April 2021
Contact:Robin Aupperle, PhD

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This project aims to identify brain and behavioral characteristics of individuals
experiencing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder that will predict the effectiveness of
Exposure-based therapy versus Behavioral Activation Therapy. Brain imaging aspects of the
study will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG).
Behavioral assessments will include self-report questionnaires, computer-based and
observational tasks, and interviews. Assessments will focus on how individuals process
positive information (such as reward) and negative information (such as distressing images),
as well as how people make decisions. These assessments will be conducted across 2-3
in-person sessions prior to beginning the treatment, and will be repeated across 2-3
in-person sessions after completing treatment. A blood draw will also be conducted pre- and
post- treatment. Both the Exposure-based and Behavior Activation therapy will consist of 10,
90-minute weekly therapy sessions conducted in small groups.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common anxiety disorder in primary care, with
lifetime prevalence rates of 6%. GAD leads to significant individual and socioeconomic burden
(e.g., due to days lost at work and increased health care utilization). Although there is
significant comorbidity with major depressive disorder (MDD), a GAD diagnosis conveys a much
poorer prognosis, with only 58% with GAD vs. 80% with MDD alone obtaining remission in two
years. This highlights the importance of effectively treating GAD, for improving mental and
physical health and decreasing socioeconomic burden. First-line treatments include medication
(e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]) and psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive
behavioral therapy [CBT]). While both are superior to placebo, only 40-60% experience
significant improvement, with at least 25% relapsing within a year. Thus, long-lasting
improvements are occurring in less than 50% of patients. This ineffectiveness has been
moderately associated with symptom severity, illness duration, and comorbidity, but these
findings do not provide any strategies for improving treatment effectiveness. The current
study will seek to identify behavioral or cognitive-affective predictors that indicate how
well a patient is responding to treatment so that interventions can be further individualized
to more effectively treat refractory patients.

The overall aim of this study are to identify whether neural, biological, and behavioral
responses related to the arbitration of conflicting avoidance and approach drives can predict
response to Exposure-based versus Behavioral Activate therapy for individuals with
generalized anxiety disorder (with or without co-morbid major depressive disorder). This will
be accomplished using behavioral, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and genetic
analyses pre and post Behavioral Activation therapy. Research subjects will include
treatment-seeking individuals with clinically significant symptoms of unipolar depression.
Diagnosis will be assessed using structured clinical interviews. Anxious and depressive
symptom severity, personality characteristics, and general functioning will be collected via
self-report paper-and-pencil questionnaires. Objective measures of approach, avoidance, and
conflict behavioral responses will be collected using computer-administered testing and
related neural responsivity will be measured using fMRI. For exploratory aims, a blood draw
will be collect pre and post-treatment to examine genetic factors that may predict response
to behavior therapy. This research has the potential to identify neural and behavioral
approach-avoidance characteristics that can help predict which patients are likely to respond
to Exposure-based versus Behavioral Activation therapy (i.e., predictors of treatment
effectiveness) and reveal targets for future treatment modifications.

Aim 1: Examine relationships among approach-avoidance behavior and neural responses, and
baseline GAD symptom severity.

Hypothesis 1.1: Approach and conflict arbitration behavior will explain significant variance
in baseline symptoms above and beyond avoidance-related behavior.

Hypothesis 1.2: Approach (striatum) and conflict arbitration (lateral PFC) neural activity
will explain significant variance in baseline symptoms above and beyond avoidance-related
(amygdala) neural activity.

Aim 2: Examine how multi-level approach-avoidance behavior and neural responses predict
individualized response to Exposure-based therapy for GAD (compared to Behavioral

Hypothesis 2.1: Approach-related and conflict arbitration behavior will help predict
treatment response above and beyond avoidance-related behavior and baseline symptom severity.

Hypothesis 2.2: Activity in approach-related and conflict arbitration neural circuitry will
predict treatment response above and beyond activity in avoidance-related neural circuitry.

Aim 3: Identify the changes in approach-avoidance processes that relate to Exposure therapy
elicited functional improvement (compared to Behavioral Activation).

Hypothesis 3.1: The degree to which conflict arbitration abilities increase with treatment
will positively relate to functional improvement from pre- to post-treatment.

Inclusion Criteria:

1. Age: 18-55

2. All genders

3. All races

4. Eligibility as clinically significant anxiety will be determined by:

- Scoring greater than 7 on the Overall Anxiety Severity and Impairment Scale
(OASIS) or greater than 10 on the generalized anxiety disorder 7-item scale
(GAD-7) and/or diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

- Self-report that they are interested in obtaining treatment for anxiety.

- Anxiety symptoms are the primary disorder of concern.

5. Able to provide written, informed consent

6. Have sufficient proficiency in English language to understand and complete interviews,
questionnaires, and all other study procedures

Exclusion Criteria:

1. Has a history of unstable liver or renal insufficiency; glaucoma; significant and
unstable cardiac, vascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, endocrine, neurologic,
hematologic, rheumatologic, or metabolic disturbance; or any other condition that
would make participation not be in the best interest (e.g., compromise the well-being)
of the subject or that could prevent, limit, or confound the protocol-specified

2. A history of drug or alcohol abuse in the past 6 months,

3. Has any of the following diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5) disorders:

- Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders

- Bipolar and Related Disorders

- Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders

- Anorexia or Bulimia Nervosa

- Substance use disorder within 6 months

4. Moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (>30 min. loss of consciousness or >24 hours
posttraumatic amnesia) or other neurocognitive disorder with evidence of neurological
deficits, neurological disorders, or severe or unstable medical conditions that might
be compromised by participation in the study.

5. Active suicidal ideation with intent or plan

6. Current use of a medication that could affect brain functioning (e.g., anxiolytics,
antipsychotics, mood stabilizers). However, participants reporting current use of
prescribed antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]) will be
included as long as the dose has been stable for 6 weeks prior to enrolling in the

7. Prescription of a medication outside of the accepted range, as determined by the best
clinical practices and current research

8. Taking drugs that affect the fMRI hemodynamic response.

9. MRI contraindications including: cardiac pacemaker, metal fragments in eyes/skin/body
(shrapnel), aortic/aneurysm clips, prosthesis, by-pass surgery/coronary artery clips,
hearing aid, heart valve replacement, shunt (ventricular or spinal), electrodes, metal
plates/pins/screws/wires, or neuro/bio-stimulators (TENS unit), persons who have ever
been a professional metal worker/welder, history of eye surgery/eyes washed out
because of metal, vision problems uncorrectable with lenses, inability to lie still on
one's back for 60-120 minutes; prior neurosurgery; tattoos or cosmetic makeup with
metal dyes, unwillingness to remove body piercings, and pregnancy

10. Unwillingness or inability to complete any of the major aspects of the study protocol,
including magnetic resonance imaging (i.e., due to claustrophobia), blood draws, or
behavioral assessment. However, failing to complete some individual aspects of these
assessment sessions will be acceptable (i.e., being unwilling to answer individual
items on some questionnaires or being unwilling to complete a behavioral task)

11. Non-correctable vision or hearing problems

12. Report of severe depressive symptoms, as indicated by a score greater than 17 on the
Patient Health Questionnaire 9-item (PHQ-9).
We found this trial at
Tulsa, OK
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